The Storms to Come: China and Natural Disasters

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 8

Emergency workers help evacuate people from severe flooding in Henan last July (source: Xinhua)

Introduction

The Chinese government is currently focused on sustaining its “dynamic clearance” zero-COVID strategy, while also mitigating the negative externalities of this approach, including shortfalls in food supply and access to medical services in Shanghai and other major urban centers (China Brief, April 8). Last Friday, netizens temporarily overwhelmed censors on WeChat to widely share the video- “Voices of April” (四月之声, si yue zhi sheng), which highlights the nightmarish lockdown experiences of many Shanghai residents (China Digital Times, April 23, 2022). Mounting popular frustration with the government’s pandemic response underscores how environmental factors, which include not only diseases but also natural disasters, threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political standing. Water-related disasters such as the severe flooding that devastated Henan province last summer, and the extended drought that hit southeast China beginning in late 2020 are a rising risk due to climate change and extensive environmental degradation in China (Xinhuanet, July 31, 2021; Sina, December 9, 2021).

Many Chinese population centers are particularly vulnerable to typhoons or heavy rains that can overwhelm rickety infrastructure and flood control systems. As a result, experts fear that many cities are unprepared for large-scale, water-related natural disasters. Following last summer’s severe flooding in Henan, a senior engineer at the Chinese Academy of Water Sciences warned that many local governments lack emergency plans for sudden and severe natural disasters that are low-probability, high-risk “black swan events” (黑天’鹅 事件, hei tian’e shijian) (Sohu, July 22, 2021).  In his April 15 address to a government conference on flood control and drought relief work, Premier Li Keqiang called for greater disaster preparedness in order to safeguard people and their property (Xinhuanet, April 15). Li stressed that flood control and drought relief are “closely related to the overall situation of economic and social development.” The CCP’s propaganda messaging also underscores that protection from disasters is a key public good that the government provides to the people. For example, ahead of its 6th plenum last November, the CCP released a slick video advertisement entitled: “I am a party member, I am here” (我是党员我在, Wo shi dangyuan wo zai) (Weibo, November 11, 2021). The video depicts cadres delivering food to people in home quarantine and helping a blind person navigate a crowded city street. The most dramatic vignette shows a rescue worker reaching out his hand to a child trapped in a tree by rising floodwaters and pulling her to safety over his shoulder. The video is accompanied by the words: “In your time of need, I am a shoulder to lean on” (你需要时,我是担当的肩膀, Ni xuyao shi, wo shi dandang de jianbing).

Floods

In July 2021, Henan province experienced unprecedented rainfall that resulted in large-scale flooding. On July 20, Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, was inundated with 21.7 inches of rainfall, which is nearly a year’s worth of precipitation in a single day. (Henan Daily, July 20, 2021; China Weather- Henan). From 4:00-5:00 PM on that day, eight inches of rain fell in one hour. Due to the combination of inadequate drainage systems and extensive underground construction, the torrential rains produced “urban waterlogging” as underground subway lines, shopping centers, warehouses and other facilities filled with water, trapping people and wreaking enormous property damage (China Brief, July 30, 2021). Nearly 400 people died due to the flooding, and almost a million people were evacuated from their homes. The Henan Provincial government assessed that the disaster negatively impacted 14.5 million people (Xinhuanet, August 2, 2021). The economic losses from the flooding were also staggering. Insurance giant, Swiss Re estimated that Henan incurred around $19 billion in losses due to the floods, with only $2.3 billion in damages covered by insurance (South China Morning Post, April 3).

In January, the State Council released the findings of its “Investigation Team for the ‘7-20’ Heavy Rain Disaster in Zhengzhou, Henan”  (河南郑州“7·20”特大暴雨灾害调查组, Henan Zhengzhou 7.20 teda bayou diaocha zu), which involved multiple government ministries and the Henan provincial government working under the guidance of the relevant Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the State Supervision Commission departments (Xinhua, January 21). Unsurprisingly, the investigation lauded the national and provincial-level disaster responses, while castigating local authorities. The 7.20 investigation team’s report praises General Secretary Xi Jinping for providing guidance during the crisis, carefully monitoring flood control and disaster relief measures, insisting on always putting the safety of people’s lives and property first, and promptly dispatching the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) to support disaster relief efforts. Premier Li is also commended for chairing multiple meetings on the flooding, and undertaking an in-person investigation of the crisis zone. The PLA, PAP and Henan provincial government are also acclaimed for going “all out to fight the floods.”

By contrast, the government investigation found that the Zhengzhou Municipal Party leadership was derelict in its duty, and that it failed to adequately implement central and provincial government directives. The investigation fingered Zhengzhou Party Secretary Xu Liyi (徐立毅) as the main culprit for the disaster for his lack of vigilance, and “improper overall leadership and emergency response” (Ministry of Emergency Management, January 21). As a result, Xu was stripped of his position as Party Secretary and subject to disciplinary measures. An additional 89 government officials were also punished for their emergency response failures (China Daily, January 21).

Droughts

While storms and floods pose a major danger to China’s cities due to their severity and suddenness, drought is a more gradual but grave danger. From late 2020 until this spring, Southeastern China suffered a severe drought due to historically low rainfall. The situation was particularly severe in Guangdong province. According to the Provincial Department of Water Resources the drought was Guangdong’s worst since 1963 (Yancheng Evening News, August 11, 2021).  From last fall through February, 70% less water flowed in to the Han river and Pearl river systems than usual, which further exacerbated water shortages in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other large urban centers (Sixth Tone, February 15).

Due to water shortages, cities such as Shenzhen implemented conservation measures and made public service announcements encouraging residents to reduce their water consumption. Water authorities used targeted water supply pressure reduction to curtail leakage, which accounted for about 8.5% of the city’s water usage in 2019 (Caijing Magazine, December 11, 2021). Nevertheless, any increases in water supply efficiency are likely offset by Shenzhen’s burgeoning water consumption. Per Zhang Jianan of the Shenzhen Water Affairs Bureau, tap water usage in the city increased by 9.3% last year. As a result, city authorities have sought not only to optimize supply, but also to limit demand. Last fall, residents were encouraged to take steps to conserve water such as turning off their showers while applying soap, shutting off the sink while brushing their teeth and reusing water previously used to wash clothes to flush or clean their toilets (China Daily, December 10, 2021).

Southeast China’s long drought appears to have finally subsided this spring. At a Ministry of Water Resources Press Conference on March 28, Vice Minister Liu Weiping stated that the drought had basically ended due to extensive rainfall in March (Ministry of Water Resources, March 28). Nevertheless, in order to safeguard against the threat of future drought, Liu stressed the need not only to ensure that existing reservoirs are refilled, but also to increase water storage capacity.

Conclusion

The concept of performance legitimacy is deeply rooted in Chinese political culture and derives from the dynastic precept of the “mandate of heaven.” Since the end of the Mao era, a measure of performance legitimacy has returned to Chinese politics, predicated on the tacit bargain between the CCP and the Chinese people, whereby the people accept the party’s rule so long as it continues to advance economic development (Journal of Chinese Political Science, February 2011). As a result, in times of crises, when the government not only fails to safeguard people and their property, but actually undertakes measures that threaten their well-being (e.g., draconian epidemic prevention measures such as city-wide lockdowns), this is not only a humanitarian issue for the CCP, but a political challenge. Because natural disasters are stress tests that expose corruption and other systemic shortcomings, they pose a particular challenge to China’s one-party system. For example, during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, many children were killed when schools collapsed as a result of shoddy construction stemming from widespread graft. These revelations sparked popular anger and spurred rare pushback from civil society (Human Rights Watch, April 14, 2020).  The enormous devastation wrought by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which struck as Mao Zedong was on his deathbed, convinced many Chinese that the Gang of Four and other radicals who rose to prominence during the Cultural Revolution had lost the “mandate of heaven.”

For Xi and his political allies, another “black swan” disaster akin to the Zhengzhou flooding would be a most unwelcome development this year, particularly given the challenge of the continuing pandemic and mounting popular frustration with the government’s zero-COVID orthodoxy. The fallout from the Shanghai lockdown has already damaged the political prospects of Party Secretary Li Qiang, who is a close factional ally of Xi (Nikkei, March 31). Until recently, it was widely assumed that Li Qiang would be selected to join the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the 20th Party Congress this fall with some even hypothesizing he could replace Li Keqiang as Premier. The latter scenario looks unlikely, and even Li’s prospects for elevation to the PSC, once a given, are now murky.  Consequently, as Xi clings to Zero-COVID as a hallmark of his political brand while he strives to remove rivals, elevate allies and clinch a third term in the top leadership posts, he undoubtedly hopes that the storms and droughts that cloud China’s future will hold off until next year at least.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].